40 days and 40 nights will do it

Herald on Sunday - - EDITORIAL -

None of the meth­ods used to curb the Covid-19 pan­demic should be news to New Zealan­ders, but it seems his­tory may not have been our strong­est sub­ject in school.

Quar­an­tine has been around since before the Dark Ages, de­vised when the Plague of Jus­tinian hit the Byzan­tine cap­i­tal of Con­stantino­ple in 541AD.

Peo­ple still had no sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing of con­ta­gion but knew it had something to do with prox­im­ity. So of­fi­cials in the Vene­tian-con­trolled port city of Ra­gusa de­cided to keep ar­riv­ing sailors in iso­la­tion un­til they could prove they weren’t sick.

At first, sailors re­mained on their ships for 30 days, which be­came known in Vene­tian law as a trentino. Later the Vene­tians in­creased the lay­off to 40 days or a quar­antino, the ori­gin of the word quar­an­tine and the start of its prac­tice in the West.

The Great Plague of 1665 was one of the worst of the cen­turies-long out­breaks, killing 100,000 Lon­don­ers in just seven months. It was cur­tailed only when all pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment was banned and vic­tims were shut into their homes to pre­vent the spread. Doc­tors wore masks be­cause it was be­lieved the plague was car­ried by smells in the air.

Small­pox was the first virus epi­demic to be KO-ed by a vac­cine. In the late 18th cen­tury, Bri­tish doc­tor Ed­ward Jen­ner dis­cov­ered milk­maids in­fected with a milder virus called cow­pox were im­mune to small­pox. He in­oc­u­lated the gar­dener’s boy with cow­pox, then ex­posed him to the small­pox virus with no ill effect.

Still, there are howls of protest about sim­i­lar mea­sures to­day. Quar­an­tined trav­ellers hop over and through fences; peo­ple flout lock­down and have par­ties; so­cial me­dia cam­paigns go vi­ral about the dan­gers of drugs.

Over the past week, Air New Zealand has re­duced in­bound flights to ease pres­sure on quar­an­tine fa­cil­i­ties; quar­an­tine fees were an­nounced for New Zealan­ders re­turn­ing tem­po­rar­ily, or who leave after the fees come into effect; and there are plans to fast-track ap­proval for a Covid-19 vac­cine.

All these mea­sures were met with some sort of crit­i­cism. But there’s scant jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. This is how pan­demics are quelled and has long been so.

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